By Sarah Howery Hart
There is no glory at a disaster. There is hard work, a lack of sleep, a lack of comfort, an overriding need to get a job done, intense pressure, and always the unknown,” says Ojai’s Wilma Melville, recent CNN “Hero Award” recipient for her vision: founding an organization to save lives by turning rescued dogs into rescue dogs and pairing them with first responders.
Melville established the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), an Ojai-based nonprofit, non-governmental organization in 1996. The mission was to produce highly skilled Canine-Firefighter Disaster Search Teams to search for people buried alive in natural disasters and terrorist attack wreckage.
Melville, also featured on Diane Sawyer’s “ABC Person of the Week” segment, is herself no stranger to lack of sleep, discomfort, and intense disaster site pressure. After retiring as physical education teacher, this grandmother and mother of four grown sons fulfilled a personal goal, acquiring a highly trainable black Labrador, Murphy. Next, she contacted world-renowned canine trainer Pluis Davern of Sundowners Training Kennel in Gilroy, California, who turned Melville and Murphy into a finely-tuned search team. Wilma and Murphy then attained Advanced Disaster Search Dog certification with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), at a time when such certification was rare.
In April 1995, during what Melville says was a “heartbreaking experience,” she first envisioned her search dog organization. She and Murphy were deployed to Oklahoma City’s terrorist-bombed Federal Building, which claimed 168 lives, and although Murphy and other dogs covered the collapsed rubble frantically, it was evident there were too few dog/handler teams.
Melville discovered that there were only 15 advanced certified disaster search dog/handler teams countrywide (there are over 250 now), and that all certified in the U.S. were trained and handled by civilian volunteers using 15-year-old Swiss methods. Training took up to five years, costing $15,000 for equipment, travel, medical care, training group fees, and purchasing a dog from proven working lines, but only 15 percent of the dogs achieved FEMA certification due to lack of professional training.
Melville knew there must be a better way to establish professional, yet faster, training.
Melville found that “better way,” and today SDF leads the nation in producing Disaster Canine Search Teams, raising the certification success rate to an unprecedented 85 percent. But the true proof of the group’s success is better described in words: Katrina, Rita, Haiti, Joplin, Japan, and closer to home, La Conchita. And, Ground Zero, 9-11.
On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroys most of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince and many surrounding communities. The Haitian Government contacts the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, charged with deploying FEMA Task Forces. SDF-trained Canine Disaster Search Teams are deployed, and teams identify buildings with likely survivors.
The dogs comb the wreckage, using their highly-specialized, advanced SDF search skills. Every minute counts, and aftershocks make search and rescue urgent.
A day after the teams’ arrival on January 14, one team, Bill Monahan, Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain, and Hunter, survey a large bowl-shaped area of rubble, the remains of a four-story building.
Bill Monahan reports: “It’s a giant team effort. From the canines, to the logistics team, to communications, everyone is working at full capacity, using everything we’ve been trained to do to find survivors. It’s an honor to be here.”
After crisscrossing the area, Hunter pin-points survivors’ scents under several feet of broken concrete, and “bark alerts” to Bill. Three girls are extricated and given first aid.
That is just the first of the SDF team rescues in Haiti.
The reasons for SDF’s success is that Melville found her mission, to train teams better and faster, a six-step recruitment and training program covering the working life of the dog, from recruitment through retirement.
Step One: Canine Recruitment, the Rescued Dogs
SDF is the only national organization to recruit rescued dogs. The dogs then receive continuing professional training and are partnered with firefighters and other first responders at no cost to the agencies, although the cost to SDF for just one dog is up to $15,000 per team.
Melville explains that finding the right dog is the key, and she sends two Canine Recruiters to shelters and breed rescue groups for personal contact. “Shelter employees are taught to recognize dogs with the characteristics needed for Disaster Search,” she explains. The recommended dogs must be at least nine months old, when their traits to become a disaster search dog can be effectively assessed. Traits include:
• Being bold, energetic, athletic. SDF looks for intensity, focus, and perseverance.
• A strong prey/play drive. Dogs with an insatiable appetite for retrieving a toy, not stopping until it’s found.
• Being well-socialized, personable, and outgoing. Dogs must approach strangers (human or canine) with a curious, yet agreeable attitude.
• Excellent health. The dog must have strong endurance and be able to withstand extreme temperatures. Hip and elbow x-rays are required to verify strength and soundness.
• And, the inherent drive to have a job, Melville says. “A dog that not only wants to work, but needs to work. You offer these amazing animals what they crave: a job! For the human, the task is to figure out what job is best for the particular dog. A happy dog is easy to spot when placed in the right job. Think of it as the right person in the right job as it is much the same.”
Melville adds that breeding is critical, too. “For many, many years dogs have been specifically bred for a host of tasks. Labradors come in many varieties and it is those that hunt that SDF seeks out. After all, we are asking the dog to hunt, not for a bird but for a live human. SDF trainers use the specific traits that each dog brings to create the Disaster Search Dog.”
“Normal intelligence is needed in the Search Dog, too,” she explains, “but over-the-top ‘drive’ is the critical essential. This drive is the drive to hunt, to search, to push on with boldness when the path is blocked.”
On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi and Louisiana. Twenty-six SDF canine disaster search teams were deployed to the area. The dogs search “voids” in the wreckage and conduct perimeter searches to determine whether rescue workers should explore a particular area, and explored partially collapsed structures that couldn’t support the weight of a rescue worker and gear.
Dogs investigate locked houses, letting rescue squads know if they need to gain entrance. Among the teams are Steve Pendergrass and dog Marc, Kern County Fire Department, who, along with others, work from 5 a.m. until midnight, traversing mile after mile of the wreckage.
‘Yesterday we helped rescue a 74-year-old man who was found
unconscious and emaciated. The commanding officer for the National Guard team ordered his men to break into the house, where they found the man and a pit bull puppy still alive. The man suffered from dehydration and according to medical personnel, had only about 24 hours to live if he hadn’t been discovered.” – Steve Pendergrass
Steps Two and Three:
The Canine Prep Home Stay and Professional Training
Once recruited, SDF canines stay with a Canine Prep Home family from several weeks to several months. They receive loving care, socialization, further evaluation, and obedience training.
If their traits remain strong, the dogs then travel to Sundowners Training Kennel in Gilroy for six months of daily training, including advanced obedience and disaster search skills. They also gain the confidence and trust needed for the next step, bonding with their handlers.
Step Four: Partnering Dog and Handler
“One way to think of the handlers is that SDF chooses handlers that are much like the dogs that they will work with,” Melville says. “The handlers that are selected need to have energy and drive of the human type.” Handlers are usually firefighters, because they are first on the disaster scene, already follow a rigorous training regimen, and can incorporate a search dog into their career and lifestyle. “Working with a dog and going on a deployment requires a fair degree of physical fitness,” Melville explains, “as well as the time to train consistently.” Police departments and the military also search with SDF dogs.
Those selected as handlers then receive a highly-trained dog, and the duo begins learning how to work efficiently together. Typically, firefighter-handlers stay with the SDF program for the dog’s entire working life, typically an eight-year commitment.
Step Five Ongoing Training
SDF continuously monitors the dog/handler team as they work on skills needed for FEMA certification. Those skills include the dog’s ability to ignore loud or sudden noises such as sirens and noisy equipment and machinery.
Another skill is sure-footedness, with dogs never hesitating to step onto continually shifting surfaces. Dogs must have the physical and mental ability to steady themselves and remain confident.
The dogs must also be well-socialized, yet focused enough to screen out and ignore people and other animals when they are searching. In short, amid chaos a dog must have full concentration.
After about a year together, if the team tests out, they become FEMA Certified, ready for deployment.
On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center is destroyed, and the Federal Government calls for the most highly trained canine search teams. SDF sends 13 teams, a third of the FEMA advanced-certified canine search teams deployed to Ground Zero.
Among those teams are Rick Lee, Sacramento City Fire Captain, and search dog Ana. Rick’s most memorable Ground Zero search becomes the time he follows the FDNY Battalion Chief to an area of deep voids and shifting debris to search for FDNY firefighters.
Both Ana and another dog, Dusty, handled by Randy Gross, indicate possible alerts — the possibility of someone alive —and they search for the direction of the scent. But as they navigate the debris, a storm materializes and whipping winds send huge sheets of metal and other debris cascading down on them.
“The leaders chose not to continue the mission due to weather making the conditions too dangerous, and there was no sign of the weather conditions changing anytime soon. It was one of the hardest decisions made. I can’t understand why God had removed us from our mission. I will always remember this event, as it will haunt me forever not knowing the true outcome.” – Richard Lee
Beyond FEMA: The Continued Vision
But the training does not stop there, Melville knows. When a team passes FEMA Certification,” she explains, “it is much like saying, ‘Good job, you just graduated from high school!’ FEMA Certification is a waypoint, not a stopping point. In our world of today a team can go out on a deployment without having faced myriad conditions.”
Melville says at post-certification there is a lot more to learn and experience. “SDF’s thinking is that when a team is sent on a deployment, rather than ‘learning on the job’ the team can say, ‘I’ve seen and done this before. I know I can handle this.’” SDF calls this “Advanced Deployment Readiness,” and the training regimen to keep a dog fit, happy in its work, and disaster-ready until retirement.
“The handlers continue to train weekly in order to keep the dog’s skills ready when disaster strikes,” Melville says. “Like any athlete, the dog’s physical ability and skill level has to be maintained as a natural part of life.” She adds that the dog’s skills must be kept up and “honed” by continued training opportunities, and she provides a family camping trip training scenario. “Stash the teenager in a hiding place and send the dog to find the ‘victim’! Do this every other day in a different spot and the dog’s skills are being honed even while on vacation.”
She adds that with good care, cheerful training, and positive reinforcement, a dog will do his best. “Allow that dog a day or two of rest each week and he will do an outstanding job. Keep the game of ‘search’ alive and active for the dog, do not bore the dog over and over again, and that dog will be self-motivated. The dog is genetically wired to search if we humans will make training fun, challenging, and rewarding.”
Step Six: Guaranteed Lifetime Care
But SDF believes that a dog’s fun, challenges, and rewards should not end with retirement, which for most dogs is around age 10, so a Lifetime Care program is in place, whereby, as needed, a dog is matched with a loving Ojai family. “Once rescued,” Melville says, “that dog never needs to be rescued again. That’s SDF’s motto.”
To date, however, the only dogs with Lifetime Care families are those that for some reason did not pass training, including Riley, who has resided with Tammy and Ken Baughman in Ojai for over a year.
“He is very energetic and agile,” Tammy says. “Anything involving running and jumping, he loves.” Riley lacked the “drive” needed to become a search dog, but he has certainly found his niché. “We felt like our family wasn’t complete until we had a dog,” Tammy says, “and SDF is a great organization to adopt from because they are knowledgeable about their dogs. “
As for those dogs that do become search dogs, 100 percent have stayed with their handlers. “The attachment goes both ways between dog and handler,” Melville says. “In all cases thus far, the firefighters and their families have kept the now-retired dogs with them as a beloved member of the family. The searching continues, but now it’s in the form of family games.”
The New Next Step: The National Training Center
But even with all of the carefully developed program steps in place, and given her program’s vast success, Melville’s vision continues, now focused on her SDF National Training Center (NTC) under construction in Santa Paula, to address the gap in the country’s emergency response network. “SDF views FEMA Certification as a waypoint in training,” she explains. “It is a valuable goal but not the place to stop in the training of a Disaster Search Team. The Search Dog Foundation is creating a National Training Center where rescued dogs will be trained to become rescuers, and all of the nation’s teams can get the advanced training they need for the most challenging disaster scenarios.”
Plans for the Center include the Advanced Deployment Readiness program, a goal that SDF and other search dog operations will be able to strive for. “Until now,” Melville says, “a team would be sent on a deployment and they would actually be challenged to learn on-the-job as they would not have faced particular scenarios before. The National Training Center will have props that will simulate actual disasters that have happened. When this is completed, teams that train here will be better prepared for future disasters.
“After a disaster, when buildings have crumbled to the ground, dogs can search much more quickly and safely than people can. By training on simulated rubble piles where volunteer ‘victims’ are hiding, the canines and their handlers prepare themselves to find people who would otherwise remain buried. A disaster search dog must learn to crawl through tunnels, walk up and down ladders, and walk on wobbly surfaces and over debris and rubble. The dog must be able to go in a direction that its handler has signaled and stop and wait for instructions. It is entirely possible to simulate multiple persons trapped under 15 feet and more of concrete rubble.”
Melville says plans are in place to change “props” from time to time, with scenarios simulating conditions encountered during actual deployments, including “deep victim” searches, collapsed neighborhoods, train wrecks, and mudslides. “Imagine,” she says. “SDF will have the ability to simulate the high temperature, high humidity conditions of Haiti and the snowy, cold conditions of Japan… all at the National Training Center. One might have to train in ‘Haiti’ for a three-month period, and then switch to ‘Japan’ during another time period… but one miracle at a time is entirely possible.”
Raising the National Bar
SDF is not the only disaster dog training group, but Melville says her group is different. “In other groups it is typical for one person to be taught by another to train his or her own dog. SDF takes a dramatically different approach. The dog is trained professionally to bring the dog to that dog’s highest potential. Next, the handler is trained to work with that dog.”
With the National Training Center, SDF will take the lead on the dog training. “What SDF does,” Hero Award recipient Melville explains, “is often emulated throughout the country. The dog world is a small community, and when SDF raises the bar, others will follow. At the beginning, I did not know or realize this would happen, but SDF has very much influenced the training of Canine Disaster Search Teams in our country.”